And now my final event from the Sydney Writers Festival live-streamed (#SWFLiveAndLocal).program at th National Library of Australia.
“I do not want to see this in print”, Sunday 5 May, 4.30pm
Panel: Annabel Crabb (convenor), with Samantha Maiden, Sharri Markson, Niki Savva
Australian journalist Annabel Crabb, as cheeky as ever, introduced the session as being one of the last events in this Festival of lying! (You may remember that the festival theme is “Lie to me”) However, she then went on to say that the focus of the session would be modern political reporting. Her panelists were all established Australian journalists (click on their names to see their Wikipedia entries.)
Crabb got the conversation going by asking whether political lying is different now to what it was in the past? That set them off. It was a lively, respectful discussion involving four women who are clearly passionate about political journalism.
One of the issues about “modern” lying concerned politicians saying things at one time that they revoke later. An example was Julia Gillard’s saying there’d be no carbon tax, and then introducing one. The journalists felt the best policy is always honesty: Gillard should simply have said that yes, she had made that statement, but that circumstances had changed and now there would be a tax. A common circumstance where this sort of lying happens are leadership challenges. The problem is that the politician may be planning to challenge, but is not ready at the time the journalist asks, so they feel forced to lie.
But, Savva asked, isn’t it better to just tell the truth, rather than undermine the political process by lying. Crabb noted that we all now know the language of leadership challenges and so no-one believes their denials.
More egregious lies, according to Crabb, are those where a journalist is given information “in confidence” or “off the record” that the politician denies when asked publicly. For example, Peter Costello had told a journalist he would challenge for leadership one day, but when asked publicly he said he would never challenge. The challenge for journalists in all this is protecting their sources, because trust goes both ways. Samantha stated that “you have to hold your nerve” which I felt was code, in part, for “bide your time”! It’s all a game in the end – and not a game I would ever want to play. However, we need journalists to suss out the truth for us.
Of course, journalists aren’t squeaky clean. There are co-dependent and lazy journalists, they said, but there is also the problem of not enough time, the sped-up news cycle, and that there are fewer journalists.
Crabb moved on to the public’s disaffection with politicians and political journalists, as exemplified by the recent social media attack on journalist Patricia Karvelas over a text from politician Barnaby Joyce. A panelist added the propensity of viewers of the ABC’s The Insiders being quick to criticise. Why does the public not recognise that journalists have contact/relationships with politicians in order to obtain information, Crabb wondered? Maiden put a positive spin on these attacks saying that “in the age of social media you have the joy and pain of knowing what people think about you”! You just need to ignore people being mean to you on Twitter. (Easier said than done sometimes, I suspect.)
Markson discussed her story on Barnabay Joyce and his affair. She explained how long her investigation took – it started long before the pregancy. Journalists must be sure the story can stand up, or they lose their job. Verifying all the information wasn’t easy, she said. She also explained that she needed to clear working on the story with her editor, for both approval and support. After the story came out, and was clearly the “truth”, Joyce apparently considered a defamation case! Later in the conversation, she reiterated the battle involved in getting any story into the paper. So many hoops! (And then, when you finally get there, “you get smashed in Twitter”.)
This sort of detail about the process was illuminating for outsiders, but Savva asked the important question: was the story politically relevant? I presumed she didn’t think it was, and nor, they said, did journalist Peter Hartcher, but Markson argued that it was because it demonstrated hypocrisy, given Joyce’s position on family values, his arguments against the cervical cancer vaccine for fear it encourages promiscuity among women, etc.
The panellists shared many other recent examples of how journalists obtain stories, of their relationships with their sources, and of how they manage confidentiality (which can include obfuscating the “real” source by using generic terms like “senior MP” etc). Their passion for their work was palpable, but so was their sensitivity to the humans involved, to the implications of different behaviours, and their awareness that it’s not sometimes only about “the truth” but how something looks. (Tony Abbott and Peter Credlin’s relationship being a recent example.) Relationships can be misconstrued. There was a lot of detail of interest to Aussies who know these cases, but the bottom line was the balancing act involved. It was a Niki Savva contact who gave the title for the session: “but I don’t know if I want to see this in print”!
We ended with a Q&A, which mostly revealed more of the same. One however asked where were the reports on policies, particularly policy comparisons. Crabb said “on the ABC website”! Maiden said that she liked writing about policy, and did indeed write such articles, but that, realistically, this writing doesn’t get as many clicks!
Another asked about the Fourth Estate’s role in holding the government to account. Why do journalists, then, call Manus Island an “offshore processing centre” when detainee, and award-winning author, Behrouz Boochani, says that he’s never been processed, that it’s a prison. The journalists replied that we could be Orwellian about language, but they do need to use the names used by the government. They gave examples though where journalists – such as Laurie Oakes – have pushed the government, forcing it to account.
Finally, a questioner asked about the role of the public service. Savva explained that public servants provide the facts, and suggest the questions that might be asked, but that the political staff dress up the information “in a more palatable fashion.” Hmm…
The session was, then, packed full of case studies familiar to the audience. The women were articulate, passionate and bold! Indeed, the clear message that came out of the session was that journalists must be bold, tough, and, as Maiden said early on, must be able to hold their nerve. It’s not a pretty job, but, done properly, it’s an important one. The more we readers understand the challenges and the pressures, the more we might support journalists – and be willing to pay for their journalism.